One of the premier philanthropic foundations of the twentieth century, the General Education Board (GEB) invested heavily in Tennessee education. John D. Rockefeller Sr. created the GEB in 1902 in response to son John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s enthusiastic report of a 1901 tour of African American schools in the South. When dissolved in 1964, the board had appropriated over $324.6 million, including $129.2 million in gifts from Rockefeller Sr.
The GEB focused initially on improving education for white and black children in the South by expanding state education departments. Beginning in 1905, the board financed a professor of secondary education at the University of Tennessee charged with promoting public high schools across the state. The board took over the Southern Education Board's programs in 1914, including support for state agents for white and black rural schools in the Tennessee Department of Public Instruction. In 1919 Tennessee hired an agent for secondary education and in 1928 added a Division of Schoolhouse Planning, thanks to GEB funding.
The GEB's contributions also extended to agricultural demonstration work, supporting agents for Boys' Corn Clubs and Girls' Tomato Clubs in 1913 until their transfer to state and federal programs under the 1914 Smith-Lever Act. A grant from the GEB began the Seaman A. Knapp School of Country Life at George Peabody College for Teachers in 1914. Additional board support funded Peabody's Division of Surveys and Field Services, which conducted studies of state education systems and curricula.
Two philanthropies devoted to black education operated under the GEB's auspices. In 1905 Anna T. Jeanes of Philadelphia created a trust to be administered by the board to assist rural schools for blacks in southern states. The Jeanes Foundation paid the salaries of African American industrial supervision teachers who emphasized vocational education and school improvement. Between 1909 and 1959, 105 Jeanes supervisors worked in Tennessee communities. The John F. Slater Fund, created in 1882 to support public and higher education for southern African Americans, came under the GEB umbrella when board president Wallace Buttrick became its director in 1903. Slater Fund contributions promoted the creation of twenty-two county training schools for black students in Tennessee. These vocational schools were often the first and only secondary schools for black students and provided the basis for proper high schools. The Southern Education Fund absorbed the Slater Fund in 1937 and the Jeanes Foundation in 1959.
The GEB's educational programs quickly extended beyond public schools. In response to Abraham Flexner's 1910 study of medical education, the board sponsored medical schools with full-time faculty, underwriting two of Tennessee's top medical programs. Vanderbilt University received the largest infusion of GEB funds for its medical school, over $17 million between 1914 and 1960; Meharry Medical College garnered more than $8 million. Higher education increasingly concerned the board after 1920, resulting in fellowship programs and gifts to college and university endowments. GEB grants to Vanderbilt eventually exceeded $23 million, with another $5.5 million in contributions to George Peabody College for Teachers. As GEB president from 1923 to 1928, Tennessean Wickliffe Rose briefly turned its attention to research in the natural and physical sciences and focused gifts to higher education on top scientific training programs. In the 1930s and 1940s the GEB promoted regional cooperation among institutions of higher education in projects such as the Joint University Library serving Vanderbilt University, George Peabody College for Teachers, and Scarritt College. Additional board contributions strengthened endowments, library resources, and graduate education at Vanderbilt.
For decades GEB officials and the educators they subsidized in Tennessee accepted segregated education and promoted industrial (vocational) education for African Americans. Yet the board became one of the major benefactors of higher education for African Americans in Tennessee, with gifts to Fisk University totaling over $5.2 million between 1905-52 and another half-million dollars in smaller grants to Knoxville College, Lane College, LeMoyne College, Roger Williams University, Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College, and Walden University from 1902-60. Some of the GEB's last grants went to the George Peabody College Center for Southern Education Studies for studies of public school systems and biracial higher education in the South in anticipation of widespread desegregation.